Throughout his career, Christopher Nolan’s main subject matter has been time. From Following onwards, his films have all fixated themselves on an intensified present moment that is under threat from the future, putting pressure on them to imagine the future as a discrete space or spectacle. All of his films evoke the future crowding the present, looming over the present, compressing the present into an unbearable singularity, although the exact nature of this future threat has evolved along with his directorial style. In the wake of 9/11, superhero movies operated to contain the traumatic spectacle of the Twin Towers, but Nolan went in a slightly different direction, opting instead to channel the compressed temporality of a terrorist attack as it is happening in real time, rather than simply reworking the imagery of 9/11. This sustained him through Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight rises, which were all obsessed with the first apprehension of a terrorist event – the first sense of eventfulness, of an anomalous event, and the way it abruptly compresses the present before the future beyond it can be properly processed. Yet this auteurist-terrorist approach could only be sustainable insofar as 9/11 cast its shadow over American culture, so with the waning of its influence, and the dissolution of large-scale terrorist spectacle itself into a more dispersed global threat, Nolan’s distinctive outlook has been forced to change and adapt too.
Ironically, the looming threat of a major terrorist attack provided the Batman trilogy with the impetus it needed to imagine the future as space and spectacle, even if this space and spectacle was only barely imaginable before it was immediately co-opted by the terrorists in those particular films. The Joker seemed to gain control of the ferry, and Bane seemed to gain control of the football stadium, as soon as Nolan himself had conceptualized it, but nevertheless these tableaux both endured as spaces and spectacles where a terrorist endgame, and the end of the future itself, might possibly be imagined. Since then, however, Nolan has retreated from the present moment – in one sense – by resorting to science fiction in Interstellar, and history in Dunkirk, although the point once again seems to have been to compress the present moment, and so evoke the future spatially, in ways that he presumably no longer felt to be possible in a contemporary milieu. In the time-bending quantum mechanics of Interstellar, and the multiple temporal planes of Dunkirk, Nolan condensed the present tense as never before, and yet the elaborate conceits of both films eventually gave way to enormous fluid voids that centred on vast swathes of water – the oceanic planet of Gargantua in Interstellar, and in Dunkirk the English Channel, which quickly expanded to gargantuan proportions as Nolan shifted between the different timeframes of the screenplay.
In a strange paradox, then, Nolan moved away from the present to compress the present, detached his films from our contemporary moment to try and evoke its future threat as both space and spectacle, only to discover a figurative void instead. Rather than presenting us with discrete “places,” Gargantua and the gargantuan English Channel reflect Nolan’s increasing inability to conceive of the future as a discrete cinematic tableau, even or especially as that future seems increasingly pressing, urgent and intrusive within our own present world. Fredric Jameson once defined postmodernism as our inability to properly remember the past, but in Nolan’s films this has transformed into an inability to properly remember the future – or perhaps more accurately, our inability to remember how we once imagined the future. That waning of futurity is the subject matter of Tenet, Nolan’s most complex, cryptic and formally experimental film since Memento – comparable to Shane Carruth’s Primer in the opacity and density of its temporal play. In the opening scenes, we’re presented with a terrorist attack that initially resembles the Batman trilogy, but this quickly gives way to an alternative present in which the Protagonist (John David Washington) and the Protagonist’s Handler (Robert Pattinson) are charged with managing a series of “inverted objects” – objects that have arrived from the future, that have the capacity to reverse time, and that seem to be “the detritus of a coming war.” Their search takes them to Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and art dealer Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) who then pull them into a war that already appears to be in the midst of being waged from a future they can’t yet imagine.
Neither can Nolan himself, since the historical and science fictional visions of Dunkirk and Interstellar are now discarded for the watery voids they produced. Rather than continue to abstract and reify those voids, however, Nolan deflects them into the spaces of shipping, mass transit and global freight, which in Tenet become the sites where the future has most colonised the present. Most of the action takes place in transit, suspended and nearly always on or above the surface of the water – from a pair of bizarre catamarans that rise and fall on stilts above the sea, to a series of oceanic windmills that back some of the most dramatic sequences. Significantly, though, Nolan never opts for total surrealism or total estrangement, using the banalities and blankness of freight and transit transactions as the main canvas for a future he can’t visualise. The way he treats these spaces spoke to a feeling I often have – of a future creeping over the blankest and blandest of contemporary spaces, a future that absorbs space so clinically that we can no longer imagine it as a space in and of itself, let alone through the elaborate spatial conceits of an older genre cinema. Among other things, Tenet clarifies how exhaustively Interstellar and Dunkirk evacuated and emptied out science fiction and historical cinema, leaving a series of clean voids that now look like the imprints, the mere traces, of an alien future hollowing out the artistic vocabulary we might use to articulate it.
In lieu of any concrete way of visualizing this future, Nolan tends to fall back upon the amorphous anxiety of the Cold War. From the outset, these inverted objects are understood as emanating from a “second Cold War,” a “temporal conflict” that has the potential to be even more catastrophic than nuclear holocaust. Sure enough, we learn that one of the main components of inverted objects is a compound manufactured in the present by Andrei Sator, Branagh’s character, who only just escaped being killed by a bomb in WWII, and survived for many years by gathering plutonium out of wrecked buildings, before working his way up to become one of the leading industrialists in the world. The future threat thus has its origins in the rubble of the Cold War, to the point where the Cold War appears to be attacking again from the future. We learn that the collapse of the Soviet Union is involved in the distribution of inverted objects, that the technology to develop them was pioneered in the “hidden” Soviet cities of Cold War legend, and that the scientist who finally nailed the inversion process decided it was too dangerous to be shared, splitting the critical algorithm into seven parts that were all sequestered in separate nuclear containment facilities. In yet another twist, this scientist apparently learned her lesson from Robert Oppenheimer, hoping that her refusal to publicise the inversion process would atone for the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Part of the mystery of Tenet, then, is how exactly this algorithm got public, how the Cold War’s future threat managed to return again, and how Nolan might possibly conceive a future threat greater than that of the Cold War – a future threat that converges the worst possible outcome of the Cold War on an even more pressing and oppressive future state. Since this encroachment of the future can’t be visualised by definition, Nolan tends to evoke it through the film’s action sequences, which all revolve around the same blank freight spaces, and always culminate with inverted objects where past and future converge. So bland and anonymous are these backdrops – light years away from the elaborate spatial conceits of the Batman films, yet more pregnant in their blankness than the urban backdrops of the Marvel universe – that they seem capable of registering time flow in either direction, meaning that the actual action has to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of converging past and future. And these are easily the best action scenes of Nolan’s career, conjuring up two planes of the same event arriving from past and future so brilliantly that they perhaps only make sense when played backwards and forwards simultaneously and then superimposed over each other. Certainly they work just as well in reverse – and need to, since the film is as palindromic as its title, refusing to provide us with a linear second half, and instead folding us back upon the first half to reveal the future already embedded in the past, and the past already reaching out towards the future. More than any of Nolan’s films since Memento, Tenet denies its audience a stable present moment, gesturing towards a future threat so dramatic that it has already colonised the deepest past, perpetually displacing the present we might fight it from.
Throughout all these scenes, Nolan choreographs and edits better than he ever has – this really is sculpting in time, as Andrei Tarkovsky once described cinema – and that momentum carries over into the dialogue as well. All the interpersonal scene feel suspended in the same way as the set pieces, suffused with a similarly floating suspension that doesn’t preclude exposition but makes it more buoyant. There is probably more explaining here than in any of Nolan’s other films, but the explanations feel more impotent, more opaque, more remote, since Tenet is more interested in assuming its world rather than establishing it. In effect, Nolan assumes the world he is describing has already partly arrived, much as the future has already partly arrived within that world, turning the film itself into an inverted object, an encroachment from the future that is quite alienating in its austere disinterest in its audience. Even the most urgent scenes are quiet and hushed, as if the bulk of the present tense has already been colonised by the future, while every line is delivered with the same sotto voce melancholy and resignation, muting the spatial and spectacular ambition of Nolan’s Batman films. There’s not even a regular score – just a series of propulsive motifs that shift and shimmer, but never lose their momentum, as the film settles us into a radically new normal.
The eeriest aspect of all this is that we never exactly “see” the future that this war is emanating from – and we are never permitted to visually imagine what it might entail. Rather, this future is continually and imperceptibly absorbed into the present, even as it abrades the present in the process, only allowing us to glimpse it in the flickering moments where mass transit, global freight and shipping logistics seem to shimmer indifferently to the direction in which time moves over them. This is most beautifully articulated when the Protagonist inhabits his inverted self, not as an elaborate sci-fi tableau, nor as a series of spectacular reverse motion effects, but as an uncannily intensified freight port, where objects aren’t exactly rewound but instead move away from whatever action he might impose on them – moving back towards the “present” where they nominally occur. Nolan’s films are all, ultimately, driven by their fear that one day there may be no future left to imagine as a cinematic spectacle – a feat about the end of cinema itself as a future medium. That fear seems to have finally arrived at its object with Tenet, which is so attuned to the endless delays and present tense moments of the pandemic that it may as well have emerged from them.
This primal fear – that cinema can no longer be a future threat, or contend with future threats – plays out in the “final” scene, which reprises and bids farewell to the classical cinematic legacy of Casablanca in the most melancholy moment of Nolan’s entire career. Faced with his Handler in a vast desert, the Protagonist realises that he is part of the future apparatus involved with managing the war, but without any of the revelation or spatial reconfiguration that this might once have entailed in Hollywood cinema. Denied a mise-en-scene to process this incredible discovery, he falls back upon cinematic quotation, observing that “I think, for me, this is the end of a beautiful friendship” as the Handler quips back “But for me, it is just the beginning.” The compressed present moment that concludes Casablanca is now reimagined as an affirmation of the power of cinema to endure into the future, and to speak back from the future, despite the travails of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund in the here and now. “You must remember this” turns into an injunction that Nolan can no longer make – that he has perhaps never been able to make, albeit only facing that fact squarely for the first time with this extraordinary effort. Call it his version of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice – a nearly abstract film that distills all his most stylistic traits, and eviscerates his style in the process, encapsulating the peculiar spirit and sobriety of 2020 more than any other film I have seen.